Bosom Friends in the Red Chamber: Women's Friendship Poetry in Late Imperial China

By Yang, Haihong | Tamkang Review, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Bosom Friends in the Red Chamber: Women's Friendship Poetry in Late Imperial China


Yang, Haihong, Tamkang Review


Introduction

The lonely woman longing for her absent (male) lover in an exquisite boudoir is a popular image constructed by male literati writers in their verse. However, lyric poems on friendship exchanged between gentry women writers in the seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries China easily subvert this trope. Many poems by gentry women of this era were written to or for other women, a lot of whom were their friends. For these writers, as Maureen Robertson points out in her recent article, "other women were their most devoted readers and serious supporters" (377). In poems where gentry women writers sought to establish, maintain, or develop their friendships with other women, we discover vivid pictures of how they provided a discursive space where writers could experiment with subject positions denied to them in reality and allowed them the opportunity to reflect upon their lives and take ideological positions. I propose a reading of these poetic writings as a sub-genre of friendship poetry. Such an approach will elucidate how gentry women used this poetic venue to consolidate mutual interests with the like-minded, achieve imaginative self-realization, modify definitions of femininity, and create and develop a distinctly female literary tradition. (1)

While studying women's friendship poetry, I encountered two sharp contrasts. On the one hand, the rarity of depictions of female friendship in male-authored classical Chinese literature contrasts with the large repertory of stories, poems, and plays on and about friendship between men. On the other hand, the silence regarding female friendship in the (male) literati tradition is loudly contradicted in poetry by gentry women.

Traditionally, literati discourses favor a male-oriented reading of friendship. Friend, or you [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was often associated with Confucian scholars and teachings. (2) Shuowen jiezi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], an analytical dictionary of Chinese characters composed in the second century CE, defines you as those who share common aspirations ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (Xu 65). Liji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Book of Rites) elaborates on this definition and designates friends of a Confucian scholar as those "with whom he agrees in aim, and pursues the same objects, with whom he cultivates the same course, and that by the same methods" (Legge 28:408-09). Friendship in Confucianism was, therefore, assigned an elevated status and was often a defining relationship in the public sphere reserved for men. (3) On the contrary, in rare cases when male literati did acknowledge friendship between women, the semantic meaning and syntactic usage of you was deliberately limited and slanted to avoid the elevated moral connotation that it conveyed in a male context. Beata Grant has observed that two male compilers of Chidu xinyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Modern letters) categorize the friends of Shen Hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (courtesy name Lanfang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a seventeen-century woman poet, into four groups: poetry friends, painting friends, calligraphy friends, and Chan-discussing friends (219-20). The modifying phrases in front of "friend" defensively justify Shen's friendships with other women, as poetry, painting, calligraphy, and Chan discussing were often not only tolerated but also encouraged in gentry families. Although these qualifying phrases elevate the roles of the women above those defined by kinship and domestic duties, they fail to acknowledge any moral implications or affective dimensions of women's friendship.

Ranked last in the five cardinal relationships, friendship differs from the other four as it is non-hierarchical and creates the potential to traverse the boundary between family and court, allowing for human relationships beyond kinship and political subordination. While the other four cardinal relationships were usually formed arbitrarily and endured without one's consent, friendship celebrated shared aspirations and mutual recognition of moral righteousness, featured mutual selection and agreement, and granted more agency. …

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